Without further ado, here is the Fragrant Elephant review:
Story: 7 out of 10
The theme of human technology versus the natural world is the whoopee cushion that Tales of Xillia will repeatedly slap across players' faces. In this game, humans have "mana lobes" that allow them to summon spirits to cast artes (magic) such as lighting street lamps, building large structures, sailing ships, etc. Meanwhile, "spyrixes" are high-tech inventions that are typically made for offensive purposes (e.g. giant guns)...and they kill spirits to boot. Spyrixes are B-A-D.
The story gets plus points for feminism because Milla is the main driver of the plot (although, as she herself says, the concept of gender technically doesn't apply to her). Everything in Tales of Xillia centers upon Milla's mission of eliminating spyrixes to maintain the balance between humans and spirits. Because Shinto.
Jude tags along after their obligatory meet-cute moment, and along the way they gather a group of bland do-gooders. Together they go against a king who built a giant spyrix for war...and then things get confusing, especially if you play Milla's story first. Things eventually get explained, so never fear! Long story short: HUMAN TECHNOLOGY BAD, SPIRITS GOOD.
Characters: 7 out of 10
Milla has the best personality and dialogue, in my opinion. Her voice actor nails the flat, brusque, I-am-Lord-of-the-Spirits-get-out-of-my-way tone. Milla is blunt, no-nonsense, and completely mission-focused. She's calculating, too, and even admitted that she chose her extremely attractive human form because of its "effect on men--half the human population." (Milla, darling...only half? Tsk, tsk, heteronormative standards.) She can be a heartless bastard who would leave a child behind to complete her quest, which is why Jude is a good counterbalance. He's super earnest and if he were a food item, he'd be a Twinkie -- one bite, instant diabetes! Plus he has daddy issues blah blah blah. But Jude is inoffensive, and a kickass fighter, so he's okay.
Possibly the most interesting character is Alvin because of his constant inner conflict. He's shady but charming, and lies easily. Players can never be sure what he'll do next -- he tends to disappear for stretches of time, and has a glib answer for everything. Later on, he has the most realistic reactions to the situations the heroes find themselves in, especially at the end. His voice actor's good.
Cutest character award goes to Elize, the young girl with impossibly strong magic due to human experimentation. She has the most tragic backstory, but good gods, she levels up like a beast. In my second playthrough, all of my characters were leveled up in the mid-80s...and Elize was level 94. I have no idea how that happened. I think Teepo, her stuffed "doll," steals EXP? This kid is killer, yo.
The worst female character is Leia, Jude's childhood friend. Like Jude, she's great in combat and a healer to boot, but her only defining traits are her crush on Jude and her clumsiness. Some depth in her personality is revealed only though subquests, meaning the non-obsessive gamers will miss out on her motivation for pursuing nursing. Also, her headband is an eyesore:
Fortunately, I was able to cover up this atrocity with a ten-gallon hat on my second playthrough.
The worst male character is Rowen, who sucks at combat because he moves at a glacial pace. His only redeeming qualities are his fabulous manners and hilarious contributions to the mini-skits that flesh out the characters throughout the game.
All in all, a mix of cool and blah characters, headlined by a main character who's pretty unique.
Combat: 9 out of 10
This would get a 10 if only it were real-time combat. Instead, players run into enemies and a jagged "X" appears, then you go into the combat screen. Battles seem to be utter chaos, but the tutorials in the first playthrough will teach players all the awesome moves that each characters gets to do. Every character has his or her own set of basic moves and special skills.
The innovation in Tales of Xillia is linking, where two characters can pair up, perform combos, and provide support. For example, playing as Milla and linking with Jude will get you healer support. Playing as Leia and linking with Elize means an endless supply of TP, because Elize will use Teepo to steal TP from foes and transfer it to you. And so on. It's fun!
Kudos also for having the Golden Mage Knight, the toughest boss in the game. It's optional and only accessible in the second playthrough, but man what a challenge! Dude kicked my ass the first time. I had to resort to GameFAQs message boards to figure out the best strategy for victory.
My only beef with the combat system is the Lillium Orbs, which are thingies that you can enhance when you gain levels. From the main menu, you go into the Lillium Orb option and choose which stats to boost. But there's an auto-level option, so players have no incentive to know what exactly they're leveling up. Suggestion for improvement: have an option to auto-level automatically at every level increase. Because I'm too lazy to press three buttons, okay???
Item and Subquest Insanity: 9 out of 10
Tales of Xillia has a metric ton of items and subquests. Completist gamers will be pleased at the consideration given for their obsessive natures. The game has typical fare: food items that boost stats or increase EXP, weapons, armor, accessories, and assorted consumables. The difference here is that players have to level up the shops, usually by donating materials dropped by monsters, or money if you have enough cash. In typical RPGs, shops in new towns have better products. Not so here! You have to earn those upgrades! It's a neat feature, and makes grinding worth it.
As for subquests, there are the usual: bring someone a dish, defeat brigands or monsters, find a lost relative or animal, retrieve a rare item, etc. They're fun and add to the gameplay, but the way subquests are updated in the Events List is terrible. Because of the sheer number of events and subquests in the game, you will have to scroll down a loooong list of descriptions and hope you find one with the "Updated!" sign on it before the sign goes away because you'd accidentally zoomed past it. This is only an issue for players who care, and as it happens I care very much and also I wasn't paying attention to the dialogue so I have no idea what just happened. Mea culpa.
My favorite subquest is The Devil's Arms. That's where you have to fight six beasts with weapons growing out of their bodies, and you get the weapons when you win! They pimp out further after defeating the incredibly tough Golden Mage Knight, who apparently helped make them. Whatever, they have cool names. ("Tregatoria, the Bellowing Demon" -- possibly the true name of Fragrant Husband's cat, Oscar.)
Replayability Score: 9 out of 10
Players can choose between two playthroughs: that of Milla Maxwell, the tall, blonde, and busty Lord of Spirits; or Jude Mathis, the quick thinking medical student with, naturally, hand-to-hand combat training. I played both. There are differences in some of the FMVs of each main protagonist, and I think playing twice is worth it. Milla's is less character-driven because Milla = mission, mission, mission. She doesn't care about individual humans. By contrast, Jude's path has resolutions for all the other playable characters, and it makes his adoration for Milla even more blindingly obvious. The romance subtext pays off in the end, and not in a cheesy way.
The ending is the same for Milla's and Jude's playthroughs. But! -- if you wait after the credits roll, which you will because you want that New Game +, Milla has a separate ending and Jude gets his own. They're both bittersweet and I shall spoil them no further.
Final Score: 41 out of 50. Heck yeah! It's a rollicking good time with a strange diety and her human tag-alongs. Bring the popcorn; those cut scenes are long! And if anyone figures out why the game is called Tales of Xillia, let me know!
This post brought to you by an açaí bowl. Açaí bowl: instant crunchy, just add granola!